BY: CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON, PRESIDENT, F. A. PEABODY INSURANCE
In 1958, Bob Bartlett had just turned 17 years old and was a senior in high school. He had not learned the meaning of “You can’t do that”; therefore, he talked a wealthy fellow in Houlton into backing him in the farming business. His grandfather had an old International tractor and planter and allowed Bob to plant on 40 acres of his land. Bob had to work extremely hard that spring as he planted those 40 acres of potatoes. He went back and forth between school and work sometimes working as late as 1:00 am and making it to school the next day.
A year later, he rented a farm from a Mr. Buckingham which he soon purchased. This time, he borrowed $10,000.00 from a well to do uncle to buy the farm. He credits Charlie Woods, his high school agriculture teacher, for an excellent education in agriculture. His new farm added to his grandfather’s farm, now gave him 70 to 80 acres of tillable ground and Bob was on his way.
1965 was a terrific year for farming; both potatoes and oats were going for high prices which allowed Bob to clean up all his debts from land and equipment purchases. Today, Bob farms a total of 600 acres made up of different farms purchased over the years, now totaling 300 +/- acres of owned land and the balance rented land.
Another pivotal year for Bob’s farming enterprise was 1980; in that year he became a seed potato farmer and has been growing seed potatoes ever since. Today, Bob and his son, David, are partners in the farm, and have been since 1985, one of the worst years ever for potato farming. That was the year that Bob told David that he would have to be a partner with him, since he “could not afford to lose that much money on his own.”
Bob and David are involved in niche farming of specialty seed potatoes. The seed potatoes they grow today for farmers all along the east coast are comprised of unfamiliar names in this area. Potato varieties such as Red Lasota, Keuka Gold and Wanetas are a few of the unique varieties that Bartlett Farms specializes in for seed potatoes for use in growing both chip and table stock. He also grows a small potato variety known as red and yellow fingerlings that are too small to be dug with a regular potato digger and are time consuming to unearth. The Bartlett’s have now adjusted to the coming and going of different varieties and are always ready to adapt to new varieties as requested.
Since Bob started farming in 1958, he has seen many changes in the industry. Foremost, the reduction in the number of farmers in Maine has dropped from 2,500 potato growers down to around 300. Technology has made great strides as well. In 1966, Bob purchased his first harvester, capable of digging just 2 rows at a time. By 1991, Bartlett Farms were digging 6 rows concurrently and today with windrowers, as many as 16 rows of potatoes are harvested at once. Planters are now computerized, requiring no one to man them any longer, and tractors are equipped with GPS systems. Other changes include a massive reduction in the amount of table stock grown, replaced by processed potatoes such as chip stock and french fries. At one time, over 140,000 acres of spuds were grown in Maine, now it’s around 50,000 acres with approximately 36,000 acres comprised of seed and processed potatoes.
Promoting Maine potatoes is one of Bob’s passions and he has worked relentlessly over the years to do just that. Beginning in the 1990’s, Bob served on the U. S. Potato Promotion Board travelling throughout the U. S., South America and Europe. He also served on the Maine Seed Potato Board and as president of the Maine Potato Board. In 2000, Bob was named seed potato grower of the year by the U. S. Potato Promotion Board.
Today, Bartlett Farms is no longer looking to expand but remaining content with their niche market in select seed potatoes. Bob continues to be cautious in regards to expanding into new technologies without extensive research. It can be extremely expensive to be “efficient” and the technology has to fit in the trade off of cost and savings.
Bob is an extreme Massey Ferguson tractor fan and has become a collector of these vintage tractors. He is quick to credit Hillis Varney’s service, beginning in 1969, which first sold him on the Massey’s due to a break down while cultivating. Hillis repaired the tractor overnight and had Bob working the next day. Over the years, Bob has remained a steadfast Massey Ferguson (formerly Massey Harris) tractor fan and has 15 working Massey Ferguson and 32 restored Massey Harris tractors with 5 in the hopper. Bob’s restoration hobby began in the mid 90’s when he was considering restoring a Model 333 and found one in Canada. To his surprise he bought it and the rest is Massey Harris history. He has been restoring ever since that time, with the last restoration in 2015 and more on the way.